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A gem awaits those that trample these hidden meadows above Wakasa village in western Fukui Prefecture.

The summit plateau is carpeted in a golden shag of grasslands stretching along the ridge for several kilometers, the perfect place for nature photographers to capture hikers strolling along the park-like promenade.

Unobstructed vistas of the mountains of northern Kyoto Prefecture dominate the southwestern horizon, while the quintet of freshwater lakes near Sekumi Bay sit idle by the seaside like a group of discarded Rorschach inkblots.

The photo chosen for the calendar came out a bit underexposed, likely due to the diffused late afternoon light and a bit of an oversight with my computer monitor: a lot of images appear fine on the computer screen but come out differently in printed form.

This darkened quality, however, does give a mysterious air akin to an overcast day that dominates the weather patterns over the Hokuriku region this time of year.

In terms of origins of the mountain’s name, one theory is that the wood used to build Sanjūsangen temple in Kyoto was taken from trees felled on these very slopes. Since the temple was built in the 12th century, it is quite impossible to bear truth to such theories, but the strand of virgin beech trees lining the upper slopes below the ridge provide a glimpse of what the ancient forests used to look like until the invasion of the cedar kings.

The hike to the summit takes a couple of hours, with relatively easy access by car from Kyoto city. On an exceptionally clear day, Hakusan would be clearly visible on the horizon if not for Mt. Sanjo cutting off the vistas to the east.

In order to provide full disclosure, it must be noted that the images captured here were taken on a chilly day in mid-April, where the scenery still retains the bleak hues of winter. Caught off guard by the sudden drop in temperatures, the three of us raced off the summit in search of the warmer comforts of the sakura-draped foothills below.

 

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The Gathering VI

Another autumn had arrived, almost as swiftly as the one that felt like it had just passed. The meant another meeting of the mountaineering minds in the form of our annual gathering. I think it was Paul who had mentioned Hakuba as a possible place for our rotating event, and with the Banff Mountain Film Festival passing through the area in late September, it seemed like a natural match.

Rie, Paul, Hisao and I all met in Nagoya for the 3-1/2 hour drive to Lake Aoki on the southern edge of the ski mecca of Hakuba. With Rie behind the wheel, it was a delightful drive fueled by the intense competition of our 4-way Name that Tune battle. Paul connected his phone to the car stereo and set thematic playlists on random while we all fought for the envious title of champion. The rules were simple: 1 point each for the Artist and the Song Title, followed by an extra point if you could name the movie in which it appeared. Points could be split between several people, and the first person to reach 25 points was crowned winner. We kick off the proceedings with the 80s, with Paul and I neck-and-neck to the very end. He won by just a point while we moved onto the 70s and 90s, where I was schooled pretty heavily.

Upon reaching the lakeside campground in the mid-afteroon, we were delighted to see that Naresh, Bjorn, Miguel, and Eri had already settled into camp. Miguel brought along his inflatable kayak along with a separate blow-up sofa that we all took turns inadvertently bouncing off of. In a move rarely seen in the past 5 gatherings, I set to work in the kitchen, cooking up some chicken and pasta that left the others flabbergasted. Usually in my role of host, I somehow manage to slip away during the busy prep work of dinner, but here I was taking the lead and actually serving other people for once. I have to admit that I wanted to get everyone stuffed and satisfied before we headed up to Iwatake ski resort for the main event. Miguel’s homemade moussaka was a big hit to say the list, and served as a delectable delicacy for our humbled minds and curious stomachs. Meanwhile, Viviana’s video chat from Austria made us feel nostalgic for the old days when she was stilling based here in Japan. Shortly after, we all gathered in front of Michal’s memorial tarp for group photo antics.

As the sun receded towards the horizon, we bought firewood and rented a foldable stove and waited to see if Ed would arrive in time for the film festival. He was running a bit behind schedule, so he agreed to meet us at the campsite afterwards as the 7 of us crammed into Naresh’s minivan for the 20-minute ride to the Banff Mountain Film Festival. This annual film festival tours the world, and every year reaches Japan’s shores in the busy autumn season. However, there is usually only one outdoor showing in Japan, with the other dozen or so viewings relegated to a stuffy indoor theater. It seems silly to watch mountaineering films in the warm comforts of the theater instead of natural surroundings in the open air, which is why we all decided to descend onto the dew-covered slopes of Iwatake. The pre-show festivities were already in full swing upon arrival, with a live DJ spinning some smooth house tunes and a half dozen food and beverage vendors spread out in front of the ski lodge. A slackline even made a guest appearance as Paul rubbed elbows with a few school children who were using the contraption as a makeshift trampoline.

The festival started promptly, and upon entry we were all presented a free gift from the masters of headgear over at Buff, the main sponsor of the event. We all received different designs, with the lucky ones the recipient of a 100% merino wool head wrap, which retails for just over 5000 yen. Considering that entry to the festival is only 1500 yen, we all considered ourselves ahead of the game, even for us unlucky few that were given 100% cotton head garments in lieu of the high-quality sheep hair. A drone flew over the crowd to shoot a promotional video for Buff, and we were all encouraged to show off our gifts.

55 Hours in Mexico, a short film created by Outdoor Research, kicked off the festival documenting a weekend assault of Mexico’s Orizaba, the third highest mountain in North America . That was followed up by Doing it Scared, an inspirational tale of a British climber overcoming a disability to tackle a spire that was the cause of his crippling accident. When We Were Knights, the tragic story of a fallen wingsuit diver, brought tears to everyone’s eyes while Young Guns showed off two teenage prodigies that are now treading new ground in the realm of Sport Climbing. After a brief intermission, the second half of the festival commenced with Danny MacAskill showing us all that anything is possible and impossible on a mountain bike. Next up came a backcountry ski mission to Alaska where a handful of gravity defiers swooped down near-vertical walls of powder snow to the gasps and yelps of the snow-hungry locals here in Hakuba. The evening ended with the Reel Rock classic A Line Across the Sky following Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s traverse of the Fitzroy massif in Patagonia. By the time the show was finished, our jaws were sore from having them hanging nonstop in gaped misbelief while watching the truly inspiring footage.

Once back at camp, we set up the campfire and told stories until well past our bedtime. We brought Michal’s photo over from his memorial tarp that we had erected in the campsite. This tarp was given to me by his widow and I vowed to carry on his memory for as long as we continue to hold these annual gatherings. Ed fired up his drone to show us the horsepower but we held off on the surveillance footage for the time being.

 

The next morning dawned bright and clear, with pleasant early-autumn skies. After a brief visit down to the lakeshore to catch up with Justin, we spend most of the morning trying to finish our leftover food between turns in the kayak. Miguel’s moussaka and Bjorn’s pancakes kept our stomachs filled to capacity, with sips of coffee and chai thrown in for good measure. Paul tried very hard into coaxing me into a climb to Yari onsen, but I just wasn’t feeling up for it. The weeks of exhaustion from climbing four major peaks in the Minami Alps had caught up with me, and I needed a proper rest to fully recover. Regretfully, I had to turn down the very tempting offer to accompany him and we all ended up heading back to Nagoya, but not before stopping off at an onsen and indulging on the Kurobe dam curry. We also had a rematch of Name That Tune, with songs from the 50s that I had once again lost by mixing up Elvis and the Beatles and calling the new group ‘Beavis’. Miguel and Eri headed back to Kobe, Naresh back to Tokyo, Ed on his way to Ueda, and before we knew it another gathering had come to an end, but not before some obligatory lakeside drone photos.

 

This year’s gathering was very small compared to the ones in the past. It’s a tough call: have it in a touristy place such as Kamikochi and several dozen will show up, but host it in a far-off place that you need to go out of your way to find and only the most dedicated and hardcore attend. I think I know which one I prefer.

 

 

The Calendar Footage

Now that the official Hiking in Japan wall calendar has been released, I’m starting a new monthly series on the Tozan Tales about each mountain that made the final cut. Those in possession of the calendar can get some interesting ‘behind the scenes’ footage while learning more about some of Japan’s lesser-known summits. There’s still time to procure one if you’re looking for a great holiday gift. An added bonus is that you can start using the calendar immediately, since the first month is December 2017.

Hyonosen Chapter 2 – Decade

My first trip to Hyonosen was intended as a post-op test of my cardiac recovery and ended up being a fierce battle with rotting snow. I had certainly taken on more than I could handle and was lucky to walk away without incident. I had always wanted to revisit the mountain in the green season but had been preoccupied with other mountains. However, the timing just seemed right for a second look, especially since it has been exactly 10 years since I had my leaky aortic valve replaced. And what better place to test out the ticker than on my first post-op mountain.

The weather reports had certainly looked iffy all week, but late Friday evening Paul M. and I cemented our plans. I hopped on the 6:30am train to Kobe and we were on the road by 8am after having stopped by a local bakery for some trail delicacies and a hot cup of coffee as a kickstarter. The clouds hung heavy over the mountains of northern Hyogo but the rain held off on the 2-hour drive to the start of the hike. Due to the thin blanket of high-altitude altostratus cloud, visibility was surprisingly good as the cooler temperatures kept the lower clouds away. Our original plan was to park at Shinsui-koen but the forest road was blockaded, forcing us into an extra 1km walk on foot. We loaded up the gear, our eyes fixated on the autumn colors plastered to the ridgeline like the canvas of an Impressionist master.

It’s amazing how differently the scenery can look when not buried under a meter of snow. Instead of climbing a near-vertical bluff on my left, the summer trail dropped to a stream and followed alongside to a 65-meter high waterfall, which must have surely been swollen with snowmelt during my first trip. The path entered a forest and switchbacked a staggering 38 times if you can trust the person who named this section of path ‘the hill of 38 turns’. Instead of counting, Paul and I kept our brows raised to both the towering summit ridge and the verdant canopy of beech sheltering us from the brisk winds of autumn.

The trail soon left the spur and dropped to a small section of planted cedar to the west. A corrugated-metal shack housed a trio of ageing jizō statues that were probably expecting a better abode. The shelter would make for a miserable place to wait out a rain storm, but with the weather gods on our side, we slid past the entrance and through the stagnant strands of cedar until dropping to a mountain stream. This was the trickiest section of my spring traverse, as the snow drifts created a crevice fit for one of Denali’s slopes. I managed to ford this fearsome sliver of sawa with a brave leap over the abyss, but this time around the route has been desecrated by a set of steel ladders. The erosion here is quite impressive, and no doubt the metal links have helped limit the damage to the increasing numbers of visitors to Hyogo’s highest summit.

After crossing the stream, the trail once again climbed up towards the ridge above our craned necks. Forest of beech reigned supreme in these untouched swaths of virgin forest as the colors were just beginning their shift to golden hues. We had just breached the 1000 meter mark but continued to push on all the way to the ridge before settling down for a break. It was an exact repeat of my first foray except back in 2007 I was incredibly pushed for time. This time Paul M. and I were pushing on just to reach the peak of the autumn colors sitting snugly on the ridge.

And on the ridge we did reach, settling down onto a bench in front of the emergency hut. The winds from the flatlands of Tottori Prefecture pushed up and over the northern face of the massif, sending us both rummaging through our kit in search of additional layers. I broke out the lightly salted crisps and a package of cashews and we rehydrated for the final stroll along the ridge. A decade before, progress ground to a crawl as every advancing step with met with the unmistakable thunk of postholing up to my thighs. Now, the only obstacle was tripping over the exposed tree roots of the massive beech trees holding down fort.

Beech leaves turn a golden yellow in the autumn, but against the diffuse grey skies they took on an amber tint that harkened the commencement of winter. Paul M. and I pushed on under the glistening fortress of wind-battered trees, fenced in on the Hyogo side of the ridge by head-high tufts of bamboo grass that concealed the splendid vistas across the narrow valley to the ski slopes of Hachibuse. Every now and again,  the bald ski runs poked out beneath gaps in the undergrowth, flanked on both sides by foreshortened ridges of pale blue floating high above an ethereal carpet of thin autumn cloud. The trail rose to the summit of a short rise before sinking to a col at the face of Koshiki Slab, a bulbous mass of igneous rock sticking out on the ridge like a giant vat for which it is named. In the cool April air, I followed the snow drifts halfway up the monster before resorting to the chains affixed to the near-vertical face. Here in the dry season a faint trail led up to a narrow ledge overlooking a patchwork of foliage spread out below.

A lunge here would see me at the top of the crag, but streams of water clung stubbornly to the face, and a slip here would involve a bone-breaking tumble back to the saddle. Having just finished reading the latest Accident Report from the American Alpine Journal, I halted my vertical ascent in favor of the easy summer detour to the east of the rocks. I dropped back to the col and traversed around, following an array of wooden steps as I sped to catch up with Paul M., who was not interested in playing any Spiderman games.

We reached the summit as a tour group was just setting off on their descent. Hot noodles were soon boiled as we scanned the horizon for familiar names: Mt. Rokko and Mt. Daisen were both clearly visible in the crisp autumn air as an array of other Kinki and Kansai 100 peaks sought out our attention. The head-high bamboo grass made identification a bit tricky, but a quick ascent of the vertical ladder affixed to the emergency hut did wonders for the views but not much for the vertigo.

Refreshed and refueled, the cool southerly winds pushing off the coast forced us down the scenic lee slopes of the eastern ridge, where a standing army of ancient cedars looked down on our awkward footfalls through the muddy minefield of loose stones that spit us out at the Kobe University mountain hut. The porch made for the perfect rest stop for a fresh brew of steaming coffee and calorie-rich brownies.

The trail left the protection of the bamboo grass and skirted a narrow ridge of hardwoods carpeted in leaf litter. Sunshine poked through gaps in the cloud cover as we dropped below the foliage line and into greener fields again. Dense pockets of planted cedar dropped sharply to our left, terminating at the slopes of the ski resort hidden behind the wall of evergreen needles. We reached another mountain hut further along the ridge and paused briefly before marching through the walls of cedar to the forest road. Here it was a simple walk along the asphalt back to the car. Sections of the route afforded views back up to the ridge line, which were now smothered in late afternoon cloud. The rain front would certainly be here before nightfall, so better to head to the sheltered comforts of the hot springs.

A decade on, the heart still ticks on as strong as ever. Aside from a few skipped beats and the extremely rare palpitation or two, you would be hard pressed to ever know that I’ve been under the knife. Of course, one would only need to put their ear near my chest to hear the tick-tock rhythms of the titanium ticker at work. Here’s two another decade of successful ascents and heart-throbbing tales.

 

I place part of the blame on William Banff. My fellow Meizanologist introduced me to the Kin-Kan 134 through his excellent blog On Higher Ground. Before his insightful writing, I had never known there were two different Hyakumeizan lists for the Kansai Region. I picked up a copy of Yama-to-Keikoku’s Kansai Hyakumeizan Guidebook when it was released back in 2010 and spent the next 5 years knocking them off one by one. On the summit of Mt. Hiyamizu in October of 2015, I thought I could put those peakbagging days behind me and start to focus on raising a family. Then I found out that there was an older list of Kinki Hyakumeizan compiled by Kinki Mountaineering leader Ichiro Masa and published by Shin-hiking Publishing back in 1993. I guess that Meizan lists are not copyrighted, however, because Yama-to-keikou simply took this list, and swapped out 32 of the harder mountains in favor of ones with easier access, which means there are now two parallel lists with a combined number of 132 separate peaks.

When hiking on Mt. Saiho with William a few years ago I honestly had no intention of attempting those extra 32 peaks. I filed them away as too difficult and too remote and wanted to simply go on hikes that looked great from the handful of other guidebooks in my collection. However, the wonderful weather and spectacular views on Mt. Saiho infected me with the Kinki-Hyaku bug and I set off in search of those elusive mountains. I felt like a kid who, when taking a bite from a potato chip, decided that just one more bite would do until the entire bag of chips was gone.

There are no guidebooks about the Kinki Hyakumeizan, so I had to scour the blogosphere for trail information. It took nearly 3 years to reach my 99th (erm, 31st) peak, when one last formidable foe remained – good ole’ Nakahachinin, a grueling 8-hour hike no matter which approach you take. Definitely worth saving until the end.

The best approach seemed to be from the Omine mountains, as the Hachinin range sits on a perpendicular ridge within apparent striking distance. Nao navigated the tight curves of route 169 as I studied the map with an eager eye and kept the other eye out for familiar landmarks. The sky was relatively clear for the first section south from Yoshino and out the left-hand window I could clearly see the lofty tops of Mt. Shirahige, a mountain that had given us so much grief just 10 months ago. The sky darkened, however, the closer we got to Ikehara Reservoir and drops of rain dotted the windshield as we sought cover in the restaurant at Shimokitayama Onsen. Just last night the weather reporters were raving about the fantastic akibare weather settled over the main island. Apparently these NHK folks have never visited the innards of Nara Prefecture.

From Ikehara it was a lonely drive on a winding forest road that would actually take us to the Omine ridgeline if not for the metal gate strewn across the asphalt. We parked and shouldered our gear under the soft sounds of the falling rain. The road had definitely seen better days as we spent the majority of the time dodging rockfall and counting up the kilometers to the ridge. It was a brisk climb of 5km, which took a little over an hour to reach the Okugakemichi and the evening’s accommodation at Jikyo-no-shuku. The unmanned mountain hut was recently renovated in 2015 and provided the perfect base camp for the impending climb. We were basically alone, apart from a huntsman spider and a mountain leech that had somehow caught a ride with us along the mountain road. I’m not sure how neither of us managed to avoid a bite but by the sluggishness of the leech the cooler weather of autumn had zapped all of its strength. We tossed it out the window and settled in for a long night.

I spend most of the night in and out of consciousness, consumed by the uneasiness of the long hike ahead. The trail on the map was dotted, meaning that is not well maintained, and the ‘bush’ comments alongside sections of the route were concerning. I did not want a repeat of our debacle on the ridge of Mt. Mikuni . Breakfast was prepared under the brightening sky that held the promise of a good day. The overnight rain brought in the cloud, so we awoke to a blanket of thick condensation that had just started to burn off as we hit the trail. Excess gear was stowed away safely in the hut as we shouldered rations and water for the long slog in front of us. The path wasted no time in gaining 150 meters of vertical to the summit of Asukaridake, where the trail immediately lost those gains in height off the northern face. After dropping to a col and scaling a rock face embedded with chain, the two of us popped out on the summit of Shōjōmurodake at a marked junction for Hachininyama.

We left the main trail and headed west along a broad ridge without the slightest hint of human encroachment. It was like taking a step back in time, and the thick fog gave off an air of enchantment that are missing from the mountains of Kansai. It took about 40 minutes to reach the summit of Peak 1340 – you know you’re in a remote part of Japan when even the summits are lacking names. A little further along ,the ridge split, so we consulted with our maps, the compass, and the GPS to check our bearings. In clear weather we’d be able to see our target peak but the sun had not yet breached the walls of our fortress of fog.

Our route dropped steeply, startling a giant toad out of its slumber as we broke down below the cloud and finally got a visual bearing to confirm what the compass had told us. We surmised that the peak towering just out of reach in front of us was Mt. Oku-hachinin, a place that the map had indicated would take over 90 minutes to reach. We went straight to work and dropped down to a broad saddle punctuated at irregular intervals by tape marks affixed to the trees. There was really only one ridge to follow and we knew that as long as the weather cooperated we’d be heading in the right direction. The vistas to the northwest opened up but the peaks of Mt. Shaka and Kasasute still lay trapped in dark cloud.

The summit of Oku-hachinin was eventually reached as we paused to catch our breath and consult with the map. It was now 8:30 in the morning and we had been on the go since 6am. So far our pace had been faster than the map times and I attribute this to Nao, who had warned of approaching rain cloud in the early afternoon. I think part of my rush was also the fact that this was the magic #100, so I was full of adrenaline. From our perch on Oku-hachinin we could see the summit of Nakahachinin rising gracefully above us with a deep saddle that cut off easy access.

We dropped to the saddle and braced for the long, steep, and dare I say relentless climb. The contours lines were bunched together as we fought gravity’s resistance by following game trails in conjunction with our own improvised switchbacks. The blue sky sat on the horizon so I quickened the pace only to arrive at a false summit on the edge of a deep precipice. I skirted the edge of the sickening drop and picked my way along the serrated edge of the ridge before pushing up the final 50 meters of altitude.

Nao and I reached the summit of Nakahachnin at around 9:15am on the 10th of September, 2017. I could now close the chapter on the Kinki Hyakumeizan and move onto other projects. Well, not quite – we still had to get off this bloody mountain.

We rested on the tree-covered summit and ate our rations. To the west sat the summit of Nishi-hachinin, an army of freshly-planted cedar trees lined the col as I cursed the forestry service for desecrating yet another tract of virgin forest in the name of public works. Future hikers are advised to bring a chainsaw to help clear the seedlings before they grow too tall. To the south, the top of Minami-hachinin peeked out between a gap in the trees. Sitting just 5 meters higher, it’s a 20-minute round-trip that some purists say is the true target since it is the highest of Hachinin’s five summits. Nao and I thought about the long return trip ahead of us and came up with the following logic: if the Kinki Hyakumeizan architects had intended Minami-hachnin to the be target peak they would have stated so instead of putting Naka-hachinin on their list. The beauty of the place does warrant a future visit though. After all, someone needs to come back to clear all the cedar away.

We left the summit for the long march back to Jikyo-no-shuku hut. I would have preferred a leisurely stroll and our progress ground to a crawl on the long ascent back to Peak 1340 – we were running on fumes and dripping with well-earned sweat. By the time we reached the hut it was already after noon. We collapsed on the carpet interior and set about preparing lunch. Fortunately I had brought along some pasta and cooked up a feast while Nao prepared the fresh coffee. The clouds had once again rolled in but luckily the rain held off until we had safely arrived back at the car.

So the million yen question now arises: what do I do next? I still need to finish climbing the highest mountain in every prefecture, and with just 4 mountains left, it’s a pretty attainable target. In the bookstore yesterday I stumbled across a guidebook for the Hyakuteizan (百低山), the 100 Low Mountains of Japan. Now that does sound tempting indeed. These tozan tales are far from over my friends……

 

I’ve always avoided climbing Mitsutōge. Sure it’s steeped in history and tradition, but I just couldn’t overlook the TV antenna flanking two of the mountain’s three sacred peaks. During my last trip to Kawaguchiko, I opted for neighboring Kurodake, a higher flank and one of the 300 famous mountains. The vistas across the lake to the northern face of Japan’s highest mountain were tranquil if not inspiring, as few hikers visit its tree-lined heights. Mitsutōge, on the other hand, is crawling with visitors no matter the time of year nor the weather. A quick on-line search revealed a plethora of English-language blog posts and trail notes, coming in second to Mt. Fuji itself. Yes, the peak would remain off my Hiking in Japan site, but perhaps, I reasoned, it was still worthy of a quick exploration.

I arrived at Kawaguchiko station by bus from Matsumoto, and immediately swam through the sea of crowds to the coin lockers tucked away on the western side of the station. It took quite some time to sort through the kit and repack, and after a short trip to the restroom to deposit a load of a different kind, I scooted over to the bus information counter to inquire about the next bus to the trailhead. “The final bus just left”, came the response from the weather-beaten brows of the bored attendant, obviously worn down from the constant inquiries of visitors looking for the tourist information counter. I was counting on the 10:35am bus to the trailhead, but I was informed that this bus only ran on weekends. Dejected but still determined, I popped into the 7-11 to stock up on lunch. The clerk was particularly inquisitive yet relieved when I told her that Mt. Fuji was not my intended destination.

Back at the station, I easily hailed a taxi for the 5000 yen ride to the start of the hike. After passing by a troupe of foraging monkeys, the driver eased the vehicle along the exposed shoulder that followed the narrow mountain stream, depositing me at a large pile of snow piled up at the unmarked bus stop. I bade my chauffeur farewell and stared up at the ice-covered forest road directly in front of me. I took a sip from the water bottle before strapping on the 4-point crampons, whose spikes easily bit into the hard ice. This deserted road led me higher towards the western flank of the mountain, terminating at a small car park sparkling with a clean restroom.

From here, the trail lay buried under 50 centimeters of fresh snowfall. The crampons did little other than to serve as a depository for dense, wet snowfall, and after every third step I had to kick my feet together to dislodge the burdensome clumps of white clay. Still, it was better than having to sit down on the moist snow to unbuckle the crampons, so I held out until a bit higher on the slopes, where the snow conditions improved under the cool winds. I soon passed by a party of four sporting blue jeans and sneakers. I kicked steps past them as they looked on with an air of envy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of spring hikes in Japan, it’s to expect the unexpected and always carry the 4-pointers.

The wide path, which I am pretty sure doubles as a gravel highway in the summer, switchbacked through the sleeping forest towards the summit plateau. The going was easy as I simply followed the other footprints from like-minded mid-week summiters. An unmarked jeep sat on the shoulder of this path, buried up to its neck in wind-blown drifts. Perhaps the hut owner uses this mode of transport in the green season? Another jeep lay parked a bit further up the path, where a signpost led the way to Mitsutōge-Sansō, which I reached just a few minutes later. It was high noon and time for a snack. I settled into a bench that had luckily been swept free of snow and peered across the steep valley towards the puffs of cumulus that held Mt. Fuji in its grasp. Oh well, so much for the views of Fuji that draw thousands of climbers throughout the year.

After a quick bite, I dropped down to a saddle and up to Mt. Kinashi (木無山), the first of the trio of peaks. It was little other than a knob on the ridge, but after a bit of scrambling, I accessed the bluffs on the eastern side of the peak and took in this splendid vista:

Crowds were beginning to converge from all directions as I retraced the route back to the hut and along the ridge to a second hut and junction down to Mitsutoge station. The second, and highest of Mitsutoge’s triumvirate is a knobby knuckle by the name of Kaiun, reachable on a series of half-buried wooden steps. The summit signposts indicated that this was indeed Mitsutoge mountain. a huge disservice to a peak that literally means ‘good fortune’. Despite being usurped of a name, the weather did bring me the good fortune of viewing the entire chain of the Minami Alps clothed in a wintry white which was a pleasant consolation prize for not being able to see Fuji.

Sharing a mountaintop with twenty of my closest strangers does not rank high on my fulfilment list, so I dropped down the northern side of the summit, past a towering antenna, and down through the forest to an unmarked junction. My feet led me further to the north to the final summit Takanosu, literally ‘the hawk’s nest’. The mountain was impossible to miss, thanks to the virtual city of TV antenna that would make for a great place to bring up some hawk offspring if not for the electromagnetic waves. The summit was not only deserted of people, but severely lacking in summit signposts as well. Perhaps they were buried under the foot of snow blanketing the top.

Satisfied, yet hardly done, I looped back around to the junction below Kaiun and dropped steeply down a flight of slippery wooden stairs. The path dropped to a saddle and then, by complete surprise, turned left and traversed directly under the cliffs of Byobu-iwa that make Kaiun such a mecca for Kanto-based rock climbers. Though no spidermen were visible on this outing, the line of pitons fastened to the rock face suggest that the belay times on weekends must rival those of the queue at Space Mountain, but this is not a hypothesis I would even want to prove. The only rock climbing you’ll see me do is when I’m forced to do so, on the near-vertical routes in the Japan Alps, where fixed chains and ladders make the going easier.

As the path dropped lower, I took off the crampons and coasted past a series of Buddhist statues to a mountain pass adorned with stone Jizō. From here, it was a snow-free tramp through the darkened forest until popping back out on the pavement, where it was a dreadful walk of about an hour on the asphalt jungle. As soon as I arrived at the station, the skies opened up in one of those familiar spring downpours. This rain continued overnight and changed to snow, so when I woke up the following morning in Kawaguchiko, it was a winter wonderland. I wandered the sleeping streets before dawn in search of a nice place to capture the morning light on the cone.

Although I doubt I will visit again, it was good to have marked the mountain off the list. The peaks surrounding lake Saiko look worthy of further investigating, a chance that I hope to seize in the more comfortable green season.

 

 

 

A Weekend in Mie part 2

The drive to Owase, a small fishing village nestled on the Pacific coast of southern Mie Prefecture, took several hours and we coasted into our business hotel just as dusk settled on the sleepy town. After check-in, we walked the quiet, narrow streets and ducked into a seafood restaurant with some interesting choices on the menu. In this part of the Kii Peninsula, they eat everything that can be caught in the sea, including the vulnerable ocean sunfish. We each ordered a dinner set featuring a sea creature neither of us had heard of. The set came with a entire fish simmered in a dark broth accompanied by miso soup, rice, and a couple of other side dishes. The hotel was a bare bones affair, located atop a convenience store, but it did have the added bonus of a western style breakfast included in the price. The next morning, we took full advantage in the top floor restaurant affording views of Mt. Takamine, our goal for the morning. Owase sits directly in the middle of the Ise-Hongu section of the Kumano Kodo, and would make for a worthwhile stopover for trekkers making the walk connecting two of Japan’s holiest sights.

Mt. Takamine has two main approaches, both of which entail a large amount of walking on concrete. Nao and I opted for the forest road from the north along route 425, which we reached after some careful navigating on the narrow road. We parked at the terminus of a long tunnel and followed the sign as it led us along the abandoned pavement towards the trailhead. The route was fortified with cedar trees bursting with fresh pollen emissions, which set off the histamine alarms and put the nasal cavities into full production. We both suffer horrendously from the seasonal pollen, thanks in large part to our prolific mountain quests that have put us over the threshold of sensitivity. There was nothing to do but to move swiftly up the road and hope for favorable winds blowing in from the Pacific.

It was a 5-km walk along the road, which wound past a waterfall and areas of rockfall before terminating just below the ridgeline. We entered the cedar forest and, after passing by a bear trap, arrived at a junction where the southern trail merged into one main route for the summit. It was here that we left the evergreen mess behind and rose into a stupendous forest of old grown hardwoods that had shed their summer coat for the season. The path climbed along the exposed ridge, the gradient rising with each advancing step. Soon enough, we reached the summit plateau, which afforded some of the best views that Kansai has to offer.

The broad summit rocks overlook the eastern aspects of both the Omine and Daiko mountain ranges. In fact, this is one of the few places in Kansai where you can view two Hyakumeizan lined up side-by-side. On our right, Odaigahara rises majestically to its knightly plateau, all but free of snowfall despite its 1500 meter height. To the left, the Omine mountains, weighing in just under 2000 meters in height, lay painted with a thin layer of wintry white which brought the mountains of Nagano to mind.

The views did not stop there, however. After climbing a boulder just behind the high point, we could peer back down to the coast towards Owase village. It was one of the best Kinki mountains so far, and with such splendid weather and lack of visitors, it was hard to tear ourselves away.

Eventually we did slither back to the forest road and retraced our steps to the awaiting car. On the ride back to Osaka, we discussed the remaining mountains on the list. While I had thought that Takamine was mountain #98, I learned to my regret that I had failed to count one other peak, so there were still a trio of mountains left. Still, three mountains could easily be conquered before the end of the year, an attainable goal if I set my sights on it.

 

A Weekend in Mie part 1

With just a handful of mountains left on the Kinki 100 list, Nao and I head deep into the mountains of Mie Prefecture for a rare 2-for-1 weekend. If all goes according to plan, then we could have two of the mountains with the worst access under our belts. An early start was in order.

Nao picked me up at 6:30am on an overcast Saturday in mid-March and programmed the GPS to the entrance to Osugi gorge deep in Nara Prefecture. We reached the start of the forest road, partially blockaded by a plastic A-frame contraption with a metal bar laid on top. These portable structures are used in lieu of a proper gate system on roads with ongoing construction work. I hopped out and moved the barrier so Nao could drive through. This maneuver, while questionable in its legality, would save us a half hour of walking to reach the trailhead. The likelihood of any construction vehicles passing through this outlet was small anyway, as the bulk of the repair work lie a further 10-kilometers up the narrow, twisting road.

We parked the car at a broad turnout affording views across the Miyagawa Reservoir to the towering buffs of the Daiko mountain range. Snow flurries floated down from the off-gray clouds hovering above as we geared up for the hike. Both of us had our GPS devices connected to two different hiking maps, as the net research done beforehand suggested a seldom used track in a constricted valley of cedars. The bridge marked by previous hikers was reached in about 20 minutes, as we left the comfort of the sealed road and breached a mountain stream that fanned out in three directions, looking in vain for something that resembled a track. On our right, a massive landslip towered above up, directly over the red marks on our maps that indicated the mountain path. Dejected, we retreated back to the forest road in search of plan B.

Instead of retreating, we continued about 50 meters beyond the bridge and spotted a small signpost indicating the entrance to the trail. We followed a meandering dirt road that looks like it was just constructed a few days ago. There is no reason for this new path other than to burn construction budgets before the end of the fiscal year. At the terminus of the road, a faint trail led into the forest above, and after following it for 10 minutes, a plastic signpost confirmed our suspicions that we were indeed on the correct path to the summit.

Despite the lack of visitors, the route was easy to pick up thanks in large part to the lack of undergrowth in the brisk winter air. In the summer it would be easy to lose this path completely under a thick blanket of ferns, weeds, and other plants fondling each other for sunlight. It was a gentle, steady climb through the nondescript forest of about 90 minutes until reaching the ridge, marked by a ‘Missing Person’ poster planted firmly on the junction point. Four years ago, a 67-year old solo male hiker had failed to return home after a planned outing on Mt. Senchiyo. He had apparently taken our exact path up the mountain, but if I were part of the search-and-rescue party, I think my time would be better spend scouring the landslip at the foot of the mountain where we initially thought the path lie. My guess is that he climbed up one of those fingers and met an unfortunate fate when the route became too much to handle.

We turned right at the junction and followed the edge of a sprawling section of clear cut forest affording views of the remainder of the Daiko mountains floating off to the north. Mayoi-dake? Check. Kogamaru? You bet. Myojin-dake? Sprinkled in white. The lack of snowfall in this section of Nara Prefecture is perplexing, but is partially due to the relatively mild winds of the nearby Pacific Ocean. The breezes ensure that wintry precipitation falls as wet rain in these 1000-meter high mountains.

Once past the deforested sections, the trail climbs to a rocky crest before easing out on the meandering contours of the summit plateau. We reached the high point after 20 minutes of gently rolling hills and sat down to enjoy the trees, for that is all we could take in on the overgrown summit. On a scale from 1 to 10, I’d give Senchiyo a 2 or 3 – it’s not a mountain I’d rank high on places to revisit, especially if further visits meant stumbling across a decomposed body.

After a brief rest, we retreated back to the junction at the saddle and continued walking north along the ridge to the secondary summit of Senjō, which sits among a pristine forest of mature hardwoods. Evidently this section of mountain was too steep and too remote for the cedar planters to reach. Future hikers should take note to visit both of the peaks in order to fully appreciate the contrast. On the descent back to the saddle, I lost a rubber trekking pole tip cover and had to revert to using just one pole on the drop back to our parked vehicle. Also, somewhere along the climb down I broke the adjusting dial on my wire shoelace system and had no way of fully tightening my right shoe. With another mountain planned for the following day, I could do little else than to just make due.

Mt. Mikuni – Bushed

The odds were certainly against us – a rarely used track along an undulating ridge of formidable density, the likes of which would turn the heads of even the most seasoned mountaineer. And a seasoned partner is exactly who I needed, so it is with no surprise that I once again teamed up with fellow Kinki 100 conspirator Nao. Rounding out our invincible quartet were Nao’s incredibly resilient wife Tomoko and Akihiro, a fearless explorer in his own right. It was Tomoko’s first foray since summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro the previous summer. We were in good hands.

Nao picked me up at Tsukaguchi station just before 7am on a calm and bright morning. I settled into the backseat along with Akihiro and spent the next few hours catching up. The last time the 4 of us went out together was back in the winter of 2015 before the birth of my daughter Ibuki. At that time, we were joined by Indonesian wonderwoman Dewi, who has since returned to her native Indonesia and has spent the last couple of years climbing the Malay equivalent of the Hyakumeizan. We all lamented that she was unable to jump across the east China sea to join us, as she would have been up for the challenge no matter what.

At Kinomoto village, we veered off onto a narrow winding road that followed the old Hokkoku kaido into Fukui Prefecture. I’m pretty sure Ted has traversed these very same tracks of pavement, albeit without the luxury of motorized assistance. Down the far side of the valley, our vehicle wormed its way past Hirono dam and deep into the bowels of the Etsumi mountain range. The parking lot at the trailhead was  filled to the brim, so we squeezed onto the narrow shoulder of the forest road and sorted through the gear. The trailhead is host to a well-kept outhouse sitting adjacent to a 400-year-old Katsura tree.

The forest road had only just opened the previous day, which helped explained the unusually large number of visitors this particular weekend in early June. We knew that 99% of them were bound for Yasha-ga-ike, a mysterious pond woven into a intriguing legend involving a protective dragon and sacrificial maiden. The story provided the inspiration for a modern opera of the same name, and locals embark on the 2-hour hike to the pond in hopes of glimpsing the endangered diving beetle of Yasha.

We hit the trail in good stride, climbing the wooden logs built into the steep hillside until reaching the start of a long traverse with a raging river torrent echoing up from below. Here and there, patches of remaining snow clung tightly to the shaded gullies as the first greenery of spring sprouted through trickling streams of snowmelt. The path followed the snaking folds of the mountains past an impressive waterfall, where path and stream converged into one parallel route. A series of wooden bridges brought us to a lush field of bountiful flora fit for the king of the hills. At any moment we expected his highness, the great Asiatic black bear, to make a customary appearance but we were left with just traces of his existence in the form of freshly nibbled tree buds and bits of scat lining our riverside promenade.

The path soon left the river, gliding past a towering horse-chestnut tree included on the venerable list of Japan’s 100 Forest Giants. It’s remarkable that such untouched forests still exist in these vastly deforested parts of Honshu. In an odd twist of fate, it seems that all of the nuclear power plants in Fukui have actually helped save the forests, as government subsidies for hosting the plants mean that less money is earmarked for public works projects. Of course this is just a supposition – perhaps the harsh weather of the region convinces the locals that their money is better earned through indoor pursuits.

Above the chestnut trees, the beech forests laid supreme, spreading out untamed along the steepening contours of the spur ridge that led to Yasha pond. Clearly marked signposts help us gauge horizontal progress, while the altimeter tallied the gains in vertical altitude. It was simply a matter of placing one boot print in front of the other and resisting the urge to give in for a break. I tend to hold off on rests until reaching discernible landmarks. At the top of the spur, the rocks gave way to wooden boardwalks as we reached the shores of the tranquil lake. We collapsed on the wooden boardwalk while watching the sun drift in an out of the swiftly moving cloud.

We enjoyed a light lunch while staring at the salamanders slithering through the emerald green waters of the pond. Perhaps these are descendants of the original dragon that once graced these shores. Tomoko decided to call it a day and opted for a leisurely afternoon of relaxing by the lake, followed by a dawdle back to the car. “See you in a couple of hours,” came our response, as Nao, Akihiro and I shouldered the packs and ventured into the unknown.

The first part of the trail climbed past the northern edge of the waters before reaching the ridge line nestled snugly on the Fukui-Gifu Prefectural border. Peering down into Gifu, we could make out the well-worn path from the south that would not open to hikers for another week. Our route climbed a rocky outcrop past verdant fields of flowering gentian and majestic nikko kisuge lilies. The terrain appeared surprisingly alpine for such a low altitude of only 1100 meters – a testament to the harshness of the conditions found throughout the year.

At the crest of the ridge, a small clearing afforded views down to the pond and across to Sanshū-ga-take, while Nōgō-hakusan looked on through the gaps of a distant mountain pass. It was here that the trail maintenance officially ended. I took the lead as the bamboo grass quickly encroached all sides. I could make out a light trail with my feet below, and pink tape marks at irregular intervals provided confirmation that we were on the right path. It was really a matter of following the contours of the land – at least to the summit of an unnamed peak, where all hell broke loose.

Any trace of a path had now completely vanished, as we literally swam our way though head-high bamboo grass, frequently colliding with toppled hardwoods at shin level, turning our legs into swollen welts. To make matters worse, we’d frequently become entangled in vines that would wrap around our legs and literally untie our shoes for us. It was uncomfortable to say the least. Somehow, amidst the chaos of the overgrown jungle, we would come across colored tape marks affixed to trees that once again showed us that, yes, we were on some sort of collision course with the summit.

Every so often, I would climb a tree in order to gain a vista to judge our progress. The summit lay straight ahread, via a gently undulating ridge not more than a kilometer away in distance. We’d need to drop to a saddle before the final climb to the summit plateau. If not for the bamboo grass we could be on the summit in about 15 minutes. 90 grueling minutes later, after reaching the limits of our endurance and our threshold for punishment, we did in fact top out on a circular tract of immaculately cultivated bamboo grass. A colorful signpost read 三国岳 and we could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

The sorry condition of the route was worrying. The fact that we spent most of the time following fresh scat and bear tracks was even worse than the discomfort of being battered by the brush. If we met our ursine foe in these virgin swaths of undergrowth we would be goners for sure.

We rested for only 10 minutes before once again turning back the way we had come. For some reason the return route was a little easier. Perhaps it was the fact that we knew which way we needed to go and we somehow did a better job of staying “on track” than on the ascent, where we spent most of the time staring at our GPS devices. By the time we returned to the shores of Yasha pond it was already after 5pm. Despite the blood, sweat, and stifled tears, we were in pretty good shape except for the fact that we were about 3 hours behind schedule.

It was nearly 6pm when we reached the car. “I was just about to call the police”, quipped Tomoko. With no cell phone reception along the entire route, we had no way of communicating with her to tell her about our delay. She was far more relieved than angry though, as the three of us collapsed on the asphalt to take stock. My shins were swollen on both legs, and scrapes lining both sides of my arms made it appear as if I had been in a cat fight. I brewed up a quick cup of coffee – I needed something to help calm the nerves after being on the go for nearly 8 hours.

Mt. Mikuni was one fierce opponent, and I can do nothing more than curse Ichiro Masa for choosing this mountain as one of the Kinki 100. He’s probably laughing in his grave at all of the idiots who are trying to scale all of the mountains on his foolhardy list. Still, with #99 in the bad, the end to this madness is finally in sight. I’d better wait until this unbearable humidity subsides first.

 

“I’ve got Mt. Shaka still on my list”, replies my fellow Kinki conspirator Nao, as he cruises north along the Kisei expressway. Since he had just finished reaching peak #90 on the list, I was inquiring about the remaining mountains to help give him some advice. “Wait, are you sure Mt. Shaka is on the list”, I reply, the puzzled look in my eye sending a signal of surprise to my trusty companion. Hmm, is it possible that I have overlooked something? The ride back to Osaka is full of easiness, and as soon as I arrive back I pull out the list and scan down to find Mt. Shaka’s name clearly marked, with a green highlight already strung through the mountain. Well, wouldn’t you know it – there are exactly 3 different mountains in the Kinki district by the name of Shaka, and it turns out that I have only climbed two of them, which now meant I had to add another mountain to the list. I thought I was on #98 of the Kinki Hyakumeizan, but now I needed to admit that I was only at #97. With this in mind, I immediately put a plan into action to knock off Mt. Shaka before word got out among the masses. Luckily Paul D. went along with my plan, and we set aside a Monday in late March for the assault on the 1000-meter high peak.

Rain fell in dreadful pellets throughout the night, but the weather forecast indicated a high pressure system returning to the archipelago in the morning, with skies clearing throughout the day. I boarded the 7am limited express train bound for Nagoya and settled into my comfortable seat when the phone rang. “Have you seen the weather forecast and live camera,” asked Paul D, still sitting in his apartment awaiting the green light to proceed. I did, in fact, open the link to Gozaisho’s live camera feed when I woke up, but quickly closed it when I found the image caked with hoarfrost and ice. I knew that the previous evening’s rain did fall as snow up in the higher elevations, so before setting out I threw in the gaiters and light crampons.

The mountain weather forecast for Mt. Shaka gave a grade of “C”, which basically means conditions are ‘not suitable for hiking’. Since I was already on board the train, I recommended we proceed with our original plan and meet each other at Yokkaichi station, with a back-up plan B of a hot spring bath if the foul weather decided to rear its ugly head.

The train journey took roughly 90 minutes, with blue skies prevailing throughout, except for a stubborn wall of cloud hovering over the Suzuka mountains. The white-capped outer edge of the range had begun to reveal itself, but Mt. Gozaisho was still cloaked in mist as we boarded the train to Yunoyama onsen. The gale that hit us upon exiting at the final destination had us running for cover, as the station sat completely empty, including the taxi stand that is usually lined with drivers eager to collect an easy wage from impatient climbers. It turned out that the road to the ropeway at Gozaisho was closed for construction, so the taxi drivers were told to focus their attention elsewhere, as no one would likely want to use their services. This forced us to call a taxi ourselves, as Paul’s girlfriend Riho came to the rescue and requested a driver be sent immediately. It was my first time to meet the aspiring dental assistant, who was on the third hike of her entire life. The first two hikes were in the Suzuka mountains as well, and she was ready for an adventure, winds be damned.

Luckily, the road to Asake gorge was open to traffic, so the driver happily dropped us off in the warm sunshine at the deserted trailhead. There are several routes up to the summit of Mt. Shaka, but we opted for the Matsuo ridge, which looked like the easiest and most straightforward route up the mountain. Looks can be deceiving as we all know, especially when studying a 1:50,000 scale map with poorly rendered contour lines. The path climbed steeply to the top of the spur, following a narrow root-infested ridge through a wind-battered deciduous forest as it meandered higher towards the main summit plateau. Anyone who has hiked in the Suzuka mountains know that the spur routes are anything but flat, coming closer in profile to the jawline of a rapid canine than say a toothless vagabond without dental insurance.

It took about an hour of steady climbing to reach the first peak on the route, where we faced the headlong gales sweeping in from the northwest. This sent us scrambling behind a collection of large boulders which spared us the brunt of mother nature’s exhale but not of her vengeful tears. A wall of dark cloud had rolled in as if on cue, dropping its payload of stinging sleet pebbles on everything in sight. We ducked for cover, swallowing small morsels of food in between swift tugs at the zippers of our outer shells as the sleet literally turned our hair white. If this tempest did not let up we would surely be forced to turn back.

By pure force of will, the sleet storm moved on just as quickly as it had arrived, but the chilly gales sent us moving upward for warmth. The fingertips burned from the cold, so I improvised some creative hand gestures in order to restore circulation, gripping the trekking poles tightly in between the carpal oscillations. The sun moved through the clouds as though we were watching a time-lapse video as Paul and I ducked behind lee-side hedges to escape the gusts as they threatened to send up tumbling to the darkened valleys below. Between blows we aimed our lenses westward,  towards the rest of the Suzuka mountains glistening with fresh snowfall.

The path rose and dropped like a poorly-built wooden roller coaster and we carefully picked our way through the contorted mess of wind-swept shrubs and shivering tufts of bamboo grass. In the final col below the crest we lost the path completely, relying on the GPS and our upward momentum to gain the spine of the twisty dragon-back ridge. Once on the true north-south axis we faced the wintry gales head on, leading with our weight into the wind in order to keep from getting blown down the stubborn snow slopes on the eastern side of Shaka’s towering form. Gaps in the frozen trees provided a brief chance to train our lenses on the frosty spectacle spread out before us.

A gap in the ridge, known in Japanese as a kiretto, sliced through the mountain as if a giant dragon had chomped down for an afternoon snack. I took the lead, sliding down the exposed sandstone until reaching the low point at the saddle, fully exposed to the howling winds. I crouched to my knees while waiting for an ebb in the torrent before breaking out in a full-on sprint towards the rocky spires on the other side. Due to the brunt force of the gale, my stride looked more like a drunken sailor than pioneering mountaineer, but once on the other side I took refuge behind a boulder and waited for Riho and Paul to cross the fractured gap.

Blessed by the shelter, we pushed on up the soaring sections of rock, carefully picking through sections of rotting, unstable snow before once again rising up to meet the wind. We soon popped out on the high point of the ridge – it wasn’t the summit proper, so we continued along the meandering ridge through soft tufts of powder snow that glistened in the afternoon sun. Hugging the trees to our left in order to avoid the frightful snow cornices to the east, we strolled through a hardwood forest caked in hoarfrost and backed by a brilliant hue of azure.

At one point, Paul cried out in agony as his knee abruptly popped out of its socket before magically moving back into place. If not for the knee brace we surely would’ve been calling for chopper assistance. Hobbling, stumbling, and sometimes gliding along, the summit of Mt. Shaka was reached just after one in the afternoon. Despite the hardships, there were plenty of smiles to go around.

The temperature hovered just around freezing, which didn’t allow us much time to loiter. We retraced our steps, taking care once again in the kiretto and along the undulating contours of the ridge. The winds had dropped from a gale to a strong, uncomfortable breeze, but it was much easier to have those streams of air coaxing our behinds rather than fighting them head-on. Once we returned to our sleety rock outcrop of the morning, Riho called the taxi company to book our return transport, as we reached the paved road with just minutes to spare.

Mt. Shaka did not surrender easily, but at the end of the day I could finally rest assured that I was indeed 98% of the way through my mountains. Would the final two mountains yield their weapons peacefully?